Psalms 1 and 2 express two different images of life under God—as a flourishing tree, or as an oppressive bondage. Which image controls you will determine your path and your ultimate destiny.
The wicked imagination of God’s rule that we discussed last week has been enacted throughout history. Think about the serpent’s counsel to Eve: Did God really command that you not eat of the tree? That’s burdensome! He just knows you will become like him. Burst that bond apart and eat the fruit.
Or think about the Tower of Babel. God had commanded Noah and his sons to “be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.” But their descendents migrated together east, and they said, That’s burdensome! Cast away that cord from us. “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” What God meant as a blessing for them, they saw as restraining.
Or think about the Israelites. God gave them the law of Moses, and he said, “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.”
And the Hebrews said, that’s burdensome! If we want peace in the land, we need to intermarry with the Canaanites, contrary to God’s law. And if we want our crops to grow, we need to worship Baal, the god of the storm. And if we want to have children, we need to worship Ashtaroth, the god of fertility. Let us burst those bonds apart and cast away the cords from us. They wanted the good life, but their wrong image of life under the rule of God—their imagining a vain thing—led them to cast off what they saw as restrictive bonds and cords, when actually the commands God gave them were the path toward true flourishing.
I could go on and on—this is the story of human history. And this is exactly the point of Psalm 2; remember, Psalms 1 and 2 are introducing the structural framework for the entire psalter. Psalm 1 introduces us to the basic foundational concepts, and Psalm 2 shows that how these concepts function through the course of human history.
In fact, this is exactly how Jesus’s apostles interpreted Psalm 2. In Acts 4, Peter and John experience the first persecution by the Jews, and after they were released, you can imagine that they might have been trying to figure out why this happened to them. I mean here they were, followers of Jesus, seeking to do his will, seeking the blessed life in him, and what do they get for it? They get arrested. They got arrested for healing a man and for teaching people about Jesus.
The unfortunately reality is that we’re not too far away from that in our country. If it happens in the not-so-distant future that you are arrested simply for teaching someone about Jesus, how are you going to respond? How you respond will be based on what has shaped your image of the good life. If your image of the good life has been shaped by the American dream—a nice house and comfort, no opposition, total freedom—then you are going to cave to the pressure in pursuit of that image of the good life.
Well how did the apostles respond? They went to Psalm 2. They recognized Psalm 2 as a fundamental lens through which to interpret all of human history as a conflict in images of the good life, a life under the rule of God vs. a life that throws off the rule of God. And they quoted verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 2 because they recognized that what was happening to them was just another in a long list of examples of this conflict portrayed in Psalm 2.
And, in fact, they also recognized that their little part in the unfolding of the framework Psalm 2 lays out was nowhere near the most significant example of it. This kind of conflict happened in the garden, it happened at Babel, it happened with the children of Israel, and it was happening to the apostles, but the most significant time it happened is what the apostles immediately recognized. Right after they quote the first two verses of Psalm 2, they say this:
For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel. (Acts 4:27)
What was the ultimate example of the nations raging and the people imagining a vain thing? What was the ultimate example of the wicked acting out their image of God’s rule as oppressive? The apostles knew that the ultimate example of Psalm 2 was the crucifixion of the Son of God.